Bureaucrats and psychedelics don’t usually go hand in hand but in Venezuela anything can happen.
Matthias and I had driven from the coastal town of Puerto La Cruz, through the capital city of Caracas, across the sprawling Llanos and past the cattle-ranch towns of Acarigua, Guanare and Barinas before starting the ascent to the town of Merida, via the 13,500-foot pass at Pico de Aguilar.
Matthias – or “Matsy” – was German and I had met him on the Grenadine island of Bequia when I had been sailing through on my small yacht en route to Venezuela. He was a Chef at a small hotel, had an amiable manner, a dry sense of humour, and a healthy predilection for narcotics. Suspecting that we would get along famously, I invited him to join me in Venezuela when he had completed his contract and thus it was that he came into the employ of Carlos Taxi – sensing that Narendra Taxi might not quite cut it, I had temporarily changed my forename to Carlos.
Known as the Ruta de las Nieves – The Snow Route – the road is tortuous with hair-pin bends, sheer drops to one side, and a disturbing propensity of wreath-draped, road-side tombs displaying photos of loved ones who turned left instead of right. Near the top, close to the village of Mucubaji, lies the turn-off to Laguna Negra in the Sierra Nevada National Park, and here, at the end of a dirt-track road, we pitched a tent and experienced the shortness of breath and headaches associated with soroche, (altitude sickness).
Early the following morning, under a blue sky and with a layer of thick, white cloud several thousand feet below us, we took to the road and headed down into the valleys, past fields of strawberries and peach orchards, and through the village of Tabay before finally sighting the 400 year-old colonial city of Merida. Having met many of its less-than-gentlemanly inhabitants, I found its sobriquet – “city of gentlemen” – somewhat peculiar. It is also home to the University of the Andes and so has a young feel and a vibrant social scene.
I headed for Calle 17 and a posada, the grandiosely named Hotel Panama, where I had stayed on several prior occasions. It was before noon and the room would not be ready until 3.00 p.m but I knew of a bar with a pool table just a couple of blocks down the road and so I parked the jeep and we headed off for a few beers and to shoot some pool.
Time passed, beer flowed and balls were potted, and we headed off back to the jeep to collect our belongings. Approaching the jeep, something appeared amiss – a door was ajar. As we neared the vehicle, we saw a fellow stride purposefully from the opposite direction, stop by the jeep, bend down to retrieve something from the pavement and then move away. We ran to the vehicle and quickly ascertained that it had been ransacked. We shouted after him and he started running, opened the door to a house, sped inside and slammed the door shut. We hammered on the shuttered windows and an elderly man peered out and told us that no-one else was inside the building –
‘Go away!’ he said.
We flagged down a passing police motorcycle, and the officer came with us to the house. The policeman knocked on the door and the elderly occupant vehemently claimed that there was no other person inside. The policeman shrugged and thanked him and told us that even if we insisted that the perpetrator was inside the house, we first had to drive 2 miles to the central police statement to file a report before he would be able to enter the building. This we did.
When we recounted what had transpired to the duty Sergeant, he burst out laughing and said to his colleagues:
‘Hey! Loco Juan’s been at it again!’. He seemed terribly amused and said: ‘But don’t worry – he always does that, it’s not unusual’.
Oh. That must be alright then ….
Inspection of the jeep revealed that most of my music tapes had disappeared, together with several items of clothing. This, I could live with. But, disturbing was to find that my passport, my car papers, my yacht papers and my dog papers had all gone. Fortunately my money was locked in an iron safe hidden below the driver’s seat. In Venezuela, you cannot travel far without papers unless it’s to a jail. I needed to locate a British Embassy or Consulate to obtain a replacement passport and so thumbed through a phone directory and discovered, to my surprise and relief, that there was an ‘Honorary British Consul’ to be found in the Economics Department at the University of the Andes.
We located the University and the Honorary Consul. He was in the forties and had a look of madness about him. Greasy, long, dark hair that almost touched the shoulders, a pair of tinted, black-rimmed spectacles and a perverse and somewhat disturbing smile. He seemed to be stuck in some sort of time warp and you felt that he would have been more suited to a 1960’s CND march or a Woodstock Festival than to an economics professorship at a university high in the Andes.
For my part, I had tied up my pony-tail, exchanged my flip-flops for a pair of shoes, and affected the most cultivated British accent that I was able to muster, from time to time mumbling useful phrases such as ‘retired Naval Officer’. It seemed to impress him.
We shook hands.
‘You’re my first ‘case’!’ he explained. I asked him how long he had been in Venezuela and he said: ‘About 20 years – I studied economics at the London School of Economics, married a lovely Venezuelan girl and came out here. I’ve been the Honorary Consul for about 17 years, but no-one’s ever called upon me, it’s been terribly boring. Today’s my lucky day!’
It was a Thursday and he said that he could probably have a new passport for me by Monday. He produced an application form from an official-looking briefcase. I duly completed the form, and when he confirmed that all appeared to be in order and he had arranged for a courier service to collect the document, I asked him how he knew that I was really who I said I was and that, being a Colombian drug-runner, I hadn’t actually done away with the real Narendra, memorised his passport number and other personal details and then applied for a replacement British passport with new photographs.
‘Good point,’ he said, ‘Hmmm, I’ll have to think about that one…’
Once the formalities had been dealt with, he turned to the three of us and insisted that we accompany him to his “club” for a drink. We followed his car to a rural area some 15 miles from the city and drove up through the gates of a country club.
‘My home is your home!’ he declared, ‘Stay as long as you want – we’ll show you around the whole region as our honoured guests!’
Six gin and tonics later, a tall, attractive Venezuelan lady approached our table and, after briefly being introduced as the Honorary Consul’s wife, she turned to him, wagged her finger at him sharply and told him in rapid and voluble Spanish not to forget to collect the children from a neighbour’s house at 8.00 p.m. as she would be working late and wouldn’t be home until close to midnight. She then strode out, the Honorary Consul muttering, ‘Musn’t forget the kids, musn’t forget the kids’ and ordering more gin and tonics in the same breath.
At about 8.15 p.m. we staggered out of the club and the Honorary Consul sensibly suggested that he leave his vehicle at the Club and we give him a lift home. As we walked to the jeep, Matsy turned to me and whispered:
‘How about a bit of acid? I’ve still got a bit left.’
‘Yeah, why not!’ I responded, ‘He seems the type that would be up for it – after all he’s ex-LSE.’
So, whilst the Honorary Consul crawled into the passenger seat, Matsy leaned through the window and offered him a blot. The Consul shrieked with delight, swallowed it in a gulp and then instructed us to drive to his residence for dinner.
Matsy and I sat down at a polished dining room table which was adjacent to French windows that looked out onto a manicured lawn. For some reason, there was a shampoo bottle on the table and to one side of the table was a tall book case. The Honorary Consul went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of red wine which we drank swiftly. At about this time, I noticed that the shampoo bottle was in reality a gentleman wearing a trilby hat with his hands in his pockets. I pointed out this rather startling observation to Matsy who agree that it was definitely someone with a hat, but he wasn’t sure about the hands – and anyway, it was no-one whom we knew and so it would be best not to wave back.
We turned to seek the wise opinion of the Honorary Consul and were much surprised to see him squatting on his haunches atop the book-case, staring down at us with the look of a madman. From where we sat, he appeared to be an enormous frog waiting to spring from his vantage point on to some unsuspecting prey below, and I just hoped that he did not think that we were beetles.
Time stopped. Periodically, the Honorary Consul cackled with laughter, still squatting on top of the book case. From time to time he grunted but no intelligible words flowed. The gentleman with the trilby hat continued to shift from foot to foot and to stare at us, and the flowers in a nearby vase nodded their heads and whispered in collusion.
Suddenly the door to the dining room burst open. Simultaneously, the frog bounded to the floor in one leap, and a tall Venezuelan woman, the Honorary Consul’s Wife, screamed:
‘YOU FORGOT THE CHILDREN YOU BASTARD! AND YOU’RE ON DRUGS AGAIN!’
In the background I could hear the voices of young children.
Whilst the Honorary Consul looked confused and importunate, his wife ran to the kitchen and returned with an extremely large rolling pin with which she started to beat her unfortunate husband about the head. At this stage, Matsy and I felt it prudent to take leave of our hosts via the French windows, and this we somehow managed.
It must have been midnight, and I shall never know how I managed to drive back to the Hotel Panama without something fearful taking place. I do remember, however, that it was an especially colourful drive.
On Monday morning, I drove back to the Honorary Consul’s house and I rang the doorbell. Footsteps approached, the door opened, and a tall man, with greasy, long dark hair, and a much bruised face including two black eyes, glared at me, thrust an envelope into my hands, and slammed the door shut in my face, all without a word. On opening the envelope, I found my new passport inside.
My dilemma now was how to drive the 1,000 or so kilometres back to Puerto La Cruz without car papers, but having to pass through several police check-points en route. I looked at the passenger seat and there on the seat was a black briefcase with OHMS embossed in gold on the front, and a monarch’s crown. Inside was a rubber stamp, a stamp pad and some blank paper. My dilemma was thus resolved.
(Narendra Sethia operated illicit Carlos Taxi Service from Marina Amerigo Vespucci, Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, during 1991 and 1992.)